“You know Billy, what worries me is how your mother is going to take this.” –Nurse Wratched
Everybody likes to root for the underdog when he (or she) is fighting against the man. For
this reason, we have a vast supply of movies catering to this theme. When the theme manifests itself in comedy, things turn out well. There is a victory, and we are able to celebrate the victory vicariously, feeling perhaps a little bit better about our own chances for beating the odds. Think Bender in The Breakfast Club, fist in the air as he walks across the football field. But when the genre is drama, the stakes tend to be higher, and the odds for success more realistic. Victory, if there is a victory, is Pyrrhic at best. Think Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, fists in the air as the Chief mercifully smothers him upon discovering his lobotomy. What makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so gut-wrenching though, apart from the sad ending for McMurphy, is witnessing the toll Nurse Wratched takes on McMurphy’s fellow inmates. She knows them intimately, the way a medical professional would know a person he or she has been treating in long-term mental health care; however, instead of using this knowledge to help them heal, she exploits it as a means to break their wills and keep them under her thumb.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has a 96% fresh rating, both critic and audience, at Rotten Tomatoes. It won five academy awards, six golden globes, and six BAFTA awards, and in 1993 it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. In short, it is a very good movie. But not an easy one to watch. It is a cinematic vision of what happens to people who are stripped not only of their possessions and their freedom, but also of their humanity.